Congo: Sassou Nguesso wins another term but still faces two big threats
Managing elections through violence is one thing. Managing a handover of power to a family member is another.
On 21 March, the Republic of Congo held elections in which relatively few citizens bothered to participate, a fact that even President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s campaign conceded. These were the third polls since the 77-year-old reclaimed power in the 1997 civil war and he won again with a decisive 88.57%.
Sassou Nguesso has already been president for 36 years, over two periods. He will now rule for another five years and could add one more term after that, extending his long record of corruption, economic mismanagement, and human rights abuses.
“Governance by terror”
The 2021 election was notably different to the Congo’s tumultuous previous vote in 2016.
Months before those polls, Sassou Nguesso organised a constitutional referendum that promised to remove term limits, give him immunity from domestic prosecution, and forbid his extradition to the International Criminal Court. Congolese citizens were outraged. Tens of thousands took to the streets in the largest protest movement for decades. Diaspora activists returned to the capital Brazzaville. Former allies denounced the “constitutional coup” and joined the opposition. Nonetheless, Sassou Nguesso claimed victory in the October 2015 referendum and subsequent March 2016 elections.
On 4 April, frustrated activists set fire to the government’s administrative headquarters in Makélékélé, Brazzaville. The regime responded with a brutal crackdown. On 5 April, the military launched an aerial assault against the ethnic Lari population in Pool, which had long opposed Sassou Nguesso. The government claimed it was pursuing the Ninja rebel group, which had, in reality, disbanded nearly 15 years earlier. Its assault continued through 2016. Civil society groups estimated that 15,000 citizens died and perhaps 100,000 were displaced. Claudine Munari, a one-time Sassou Nguesso minister, called the campaign a “genocide”.
At the same time, the government engaged in widespread repression in Brazzaville. In June 2016, authorities arrested General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, an icon of the pro-democracy movement of the early 1990s and a leading opposition candidate in the March election. A few months later, they detained André Okombi Salissa, another opposition candidate. Both were subsequently convicted of “undermining state security” and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The government also arrested prominent journalists and opposition activists, including Colonel Marcel Ntsourou, Modeste Boukadia, Ghys Fortuné Dombé Bemba, Christ Dongui Nganga, and Andy Bemba. Other opposition leaders, including Munari and Charles Zacharie Bowao, were placed under long-term house arrest.
The Congolese Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH), one of the few remaining human rights groups, called it “governance by terror”.
The 2021 masquerade
In the lead up to 2021, the government made clear it would tolerate no dissent. Between 2015 and 2020, it purchased over 500 tons of weapons from Azerbaijan. Authorities detained journalists and activists, including Raymond Malonga, Alexandre Ibacka Dzabana, and Dongui Nganga.
The March election itself was carefully managed. Officially, it featured six opposition candidates. In reality, four are widely believed to have been puppets paid by Sassou Nguesso to compete, recognise his victory, and give the election a veneer of legitimacy. Congo’s largest opposition party, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), chose to boycott the proceedings altogether.
One of the genuine opposition candidates was former finance minister Mathias Dzon, but it was the other that provided the greater threat. Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas, affectionately dubbed Pako by his supporters, is the son of Bernard Kolélas, an icon of the early-1990s pro-democracy movement. He inherited his father’s political party and ethnic Lari base. Ahead of the election, Kolélas was also endorsed by Serge Yhombi-Opango, the son of the former president in 1977-79 who was from the same area as Sassou Nguesso. This endorsement let Kolélas bridge the north-south cleavage that has animated Congolese politics since independence.
The government ensured, however, that this counted for little. Authorities prevented Dzon and Kolélas from travelling to their own campaign rallies, refused to permit election monitors trained by the Catholic Church, banned mobile phones from polling stations that could be used to document fraud, and blocked internet access. When the internet returned, outraged citizens disseminated evidence of fraud. One picture allegedly showed dozens of ballot boxes sitting unopened in a government building days after the election. Another seemed to show results from a Brazzaville polling station that recorded 131 voters yet 841 votes for Sassou Nguesso.
Based on the Congo’s previous disputed elections, none of this was surprising, but two events did come as shocks. First, the 61-year-old Kolélas contracted COVID-19 late in the campaign. His condition deteriorated rapidly. On 19 March, his campaign released a video in which, between breaths of supplemental oxygen, he called on his “dear compatriots” to “rise up” and “vote for change”. Three days later, he died. Kolélas leaves behind a complex legacy. He was reportedly key in persuading his father, who spent much of the 1980s incarcerated by Sassou Nguesso and whose supporters have repeatedly been brutalised by his regime, to make a deal with the president in 2005. This pact allowed the family to return to Congo and re-enter politics. Kolélas became a minister and even helped direct Sassou Nguesso’s 2009 campaign, but the move sowed the seeds of the MCDDI party’s loss of legitimacy.
Second, when the results were announced on 23 March, Sassou Nguesso claimed 88.57% of the vote up from 60.12% in 2016. Like the 2016 military assault on Pool, this was interpreted as a signal that the president could claim a “Stalin-esque” victory, as some called it, and that no one could do anything about it. The only precedent for this degree of electoral theft was 2002, when, after having retaken Brazzaville by force and with virtually the entire political class in exile, Sassou Nguesso awarded himself 89.41%. Then, as now, his power rests on the threat of violence.
The opposition called on the Constitutional Court to nullify the election due to fraud and the fact that Article 70 of the 2015 Constitution requires an election be annulled if a candidate is incapacitated, as Kolélas was. Given that Sassou Nguesso appointed the court’s judges, the petition stands little chance of success.
Sassou Nguesso’s two threats
Sassou Nguesso has largely undermined the Congo’s political opposition, but he does face two challenges.
The first regards his decade-long attempts to quietly transfer power to his son, Denis Christel. Having cut his teeth in the national oil company, Denis Christel was elected to the National Assembly in 2012 with 99.88%. However, he enjoys relatively little support from the security apparatus, is regarded by Congolese citizens and the international community as profoundly corrupt, and remains the subject of ongoing legal proceedings in France and the US.
President Sassou Nguesso first considered handing power to his son ahead of the 2016 elections. It was only when those attempts failed that he resorted to the constitutional amendments. According to a source in the ruling family, he intended to try again ahead of the 2021 elections, but this plan was thwarted by an attempted palace coup in March 2020. This is what reportedly led Sassou Nguesso to impose a nightly curfew and close Congo’s borders, rather than – or at least as well as – the threat of COVID-19.
The second threat facing Sassou Nguesso’s hold on power is General Mokoko. Although he has been in prison since 2016, the pro-democracy icon arguably commands more respect in Congo than any other living figure and is uniquely capable of bridging the north-south divide. Born in Mossaka, Cuvette, not far from Sassou Nguesso’s native Oyo, Mokoko personally guaranteed the security of the National Conference that brought Pascal Lissouba, a southerner, to power in 1992. When he emerges from prison, he will do so as a martyr. Citizens will rally behind him, on the streets or at the ballot box.